By Invitation Only
Pastor Rick Danielson
In these days of paperless correspondence, it’s unusual for anything of importance to arrive in my mailbox. I always have to sift through the flyers and political endorsements and exciting, one-time offers to see if there are any actual envelopes with personal letters. Every long once in a while, I will be delighted find an invitation to a wedding, and of course most of these are still delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. Inside there will be a second envelope and a little card marked “RSVP.”
This morning’s Gospel reading is a story in parable form about what has got to be the most drama-filled wedding ever held. The excitement began with the failure of the invited guests to “”répondez s'il vous plait.”
I know a little bit about RSVPing. As a result of my recent wedding, I promise that I will never again put one of those little cards aside to deal with later and then forget. They are of critical importance, especially when it comes time to order food for the wedding feast. If people haven’t sent the cards back by that time, the bride and the groom or the bride and the bride or the groom and the groom have to start contacting all those laggards one by one to find out if they are coming to the wedding or not. But then there are those who send the RSVP and say that they and their guest will be there, but nevertheless cancel later on, sometimes at the last minute, which messes up the count for the caterer. Sometimes the reasons are very understandable, and sometimes they translate into something that sounds like “I got a better offer.”
People can have all kinds of reasons to not attend a wedding, but for the persons putting on the banquet, a simple returned RSVP is like gold, and the ability of those who responded “yes” to follow through relieves all sorts of last minute wedding anxiety. The king in today’s parable was preparing for his own son’s wedding. You would think that attending a royal wedding would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that no one would miss. The fact that those uniquely privileged citizens nonchalantly blew off the invitation is the first of many absurdities in this parable.
Most religious or spiritual traditions have wedding feasts embedded in their stories and their practices. Buddhism tells of the Feast of Jambunada where the Buddha himself is invited and where everyone is welcome and the food never runs out. Islam has ancient written guidelines for wedding banquets that continue to be followed today.
Jesus’ parable of the banquet is not just in Matthew, but also in the Gospel of Luke. Luke’s version reads quite differently, though. It is the cleaned up, sanitized account that simply tells about a wedding feast where many were invited, everyone ended up making last-minute excuses, and they were all replaced by the poor and the lame and the outcast. I have preached on that text many times, and honestly it makes for a great sermon on social justice and the wide welcome God extends to all people.
At first glance, this is the same story. A wedding feast, ungrateful invitees, and also replacement guests. There was a folk song written by some Catholic nuns in the late 1960s that I remember singing in Sunday School and at church camp. It was based on Jesus’ Parable. Do you know the song I’m speaking of? Sing it with me if you know it: “I cannot come to the banquet, don’t trouble me now. I have married a wife, I have bought me a cow. I have fields and commitments…” and so on. It’s a fun song about a fun story. But Matthew’s version of the parable isn’t fun at all. There is a very deep, very dark underside that overtakes the story. When the guests don’t arrive, the King sends out his slaves (and obviously the whole matter of slavery is horrific in itself) and when the slaves cheerfully announce that dinner is about to be served, some of the lucky invitees respond by murdering them. Talk about “killing the messenger!” As if that was not bad enough, when the king got word of what happened, he was so angry that he send soldiers to destroy the murderers and burn their city, which we could reasonably assume was his own city. Remember, absurdity is part of many of Jesus’ parables, especially this one, so the details don’t necessarily have to make sense.
All of this mayhem took place within a short timeframe, assumedly while the sterno burners kept the food warm in the banquet hall. It wasn’t until slaves and murderers were dead and a city was destroyed that the remaining slaves took to the streets and invited anyone they could find – good and bad alike – to come to the feast. This time everyone was willing, and I’m not surprised considering what happened to those who said “no.”
If this was Luke’s version of the story, even with the additional, grim details, it would end right there: a mostly happy occasion where the dining hall is filled with people eating and dancing and celebrating the marriage of the king’s son. But the writer can’t seem to help himself, and so rather than wrapping it up, another wrinkle is added to the story. The king is not completely happy as he looks around and observes the party. He sees a guest who is without proper attire, and he asks “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” The man had no answer, so the king told the wedding attendants to bind up the man’s hands and feet and throw him into the outer darkness “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Did you notice what the king called the man? “Friend!” Truly, with friends like that, who needs enemies?
This postscript is troubling, when you consider that the man without a wedding robe was essentially picked up off the street with no notice and whisked off to the wedding. How can someone be blamed for not dressing well when he wasn’t given proper notice? Again, the details in the parable are not necessarily expected to make sense. Some commentators, however, have suggested that robes were traditionally passed out to wedding guests on arrival. If that is so, then the man either neglected or refused to put it on. Sending him to a dark and bitter end still seems a bit harsh.
There are various ways to understand the parables, and some can best be interpreted as allegories. This seems to be one of them. The community of Matthew was proud of its Jewish heritage and also took pains to demonstrate how Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. The parable is very possibly the story of God’s people being invited to take their places within a new realm established by Jesus and symbolized by a marriage feast. Most refused the invitation, and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD is hinted at in the burning of the city. Then the welcome was broadened to include all kinds of people, Jews and Gentiles alike. But even a wide welcome requires a commitment. Those who won’t fully participate, who are without the will to wear the wedding robe, find themselves cast out of the party; in other words, they exclude themselves from God’s realm.
I wonder what a wedding robe looked like? Maybe the robe the man was handed was an awful color. Or too tight. Or hadn’t been washed for several weddings in a row. Something makes me want to defend this poor man. On the other hand, I understand the importance of being appropriately attired when possible. Prior to my first Sunday here, I asked a bunch of folks about what I should wear for worship. It was summer, and I’m used to preaching in shirtsleeves when it’s warm, but I kept anxiously asking “should I wear my robe?” Most thought that was funny and reminded me that I was now in Boulder where no one cares what you wear. I was not convinced of that, so I put on my white robe for that first Sunday despite the heat. The robe is symbolic of my role within the church body. The wedding robe in the parable is also a symbol, and neglecting to wear it is much more than a wedding faux pas.
The sin of this man is the failure to party. He has been given an indescribably wonderful opportunity. The king has invited him to feast at a sumptuous banquet. It is the social event of the season if not the decade. And the man can’t even put on his robe to properly enjoy the party.
I wonder where are you in this story? Who would you identify with? There are a lot of interesting characters to choose from. I’d like to think I’m one of those “B List” guests who was greeted at the door and gladly put on a wedding robe to cover my less than stylish attire. There were no place cards to identify my seat; after all, this is a borrowed banquet, and I’m just a surprised guest. I’d like to think I would savor every bite of each hors d’oeuvres and salad and entre and of course the wedding cake. And when the meal is over and the chairs and the tables are pushed away and the band starts to play and the invitation is given, I would get up and dance like a fool until the cleaning service told me the party was over and I had to go home.
At least I’d like to think I would do that. God’s realm is a much bigger and better deal than I can possibly imagine. Being included is worthy of serious celebration and also commitment to a life that embraces the justice and peace that characterize the realm of God.
On the same day I was married in New York, August 31st, a groom in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania named Phil Laboon held a different kind of wedding feast. His fiancé cancelled the marriage shortly before the big day, but instead of paying the penalties for a last minute cancellation of the banquet hall and the caterer, Phil decided to turn lemons into lemonade. He turned the feast into an enormous fundraiser to aid an international children’s charity. He actually called the event “Lemon-Aid.” Instead of the originally-invited wedding guests, the hall was filled with persons from around the country who drove and flew to Pittsburgh and who bought tickets to the banquet to support the work of a medical organization called Surgi-corps. The wedding hall was filled as people gave generously to help children in need. They danced and celebrated because there is nothing better than living fully and being connected to the entire human family. A joyful, exuberant wedding feast, even one where the marriage has been cancelled, is what God’s realm looks like.
Do you have your wedding robe on? Are you a full participant in God’s banquet, living and loving in ways that enlarge the realm of peace and justice that God is always creating? You are invited to the party; don’t forget to RSVP.